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Wine Tip: Riesling, a Great Grape

An ancient and noble white grape edges back into the spotlight

Bruce Sanderson
Posted: November 18, 2013

If you seek fresh, distinctive, food-friendly white wines, now is the time to discover what chefs, sommeliers and a few aficionados have enjoyed for years—the pleasure of Riesling.

Riesling is on the rise, with imports up and domestic production increasing. Growers and winemakers around the world are dedicated to pursuing the best quality from vine to wine. I consider Riesling the world's greatest white wine grape. And I am not alone, although it has been some time since Riesling's heyday; at the end of the 19th century, German Riesling enjoyed a reputation and garnered prices on par with those of Bordeaux first-growths and Burgundy grands crus.

Wild grapevines grew in the Rhine Valley, but it was the Romans who first cultivated Vitis vinifera in Germany, where Trier in the Mosel Valley was an important Roman frontier town. Were these grapes Riesling? No one knows. The earliest extant documentation of Riesling dates from 1435, near the Rheingau. Riesling flourished in the Middle Ages under the direction of Benedictine and Carthusian monks and noble families.

Today, the grape exhibits new and exciting styles, thanks to a cadre of conscientious growers around the world. The wines age beautifully and match exceptionally well with food. They also offer excellent value when compared with the top bottlings of the world's other great white wine grape, Chardonnay.

Three major attributes contribute to Riesling's quality and pedigree. First, Riesling shines with pure, primary fruit flavors. It is complex yet delicate, with lime, grapefruit and other citrus fruits and floral tones, shading to apple, peach and pear, even apricot in riper styles, always balanced by vibrant acidity. It's a character that adapts easily to a broad range of styles; with wines ranging from bone-dry to extremely sweet. But this purity and clarity of flavor does not match well with new oak; when Riesling is fermented and aged in oak, large, old casks are almost always what is used (another point of contrast with Chardonnay).

Secondly, Riesling's transparency allows it to transmit terroir. When harvested at low yields and made in a noninterventionist way, Riesling excels in offering a distinctive sense of place, capturing mineral elements from the soils where it is grown.

Finally, Riesling is capable of aging. After its initial youthful flush of primary fruit flavors, it takes on more burnished, honeyed tones, sometimes smoky, with dried fruit, candied citrus and marmalade notes accented by mineral and lanolin or beeswax tones. When fully mature, Riesling often evokes a walk through an antique-furniture shop with its polished wood aromas. It is not uncommon for a top-quality Riesling to age 25 to 50 years. Some dessert-style versions have aged for a century or more.

Riesling makes its home in many countries and regions around the world. It has many names: Johannisberg Riesling or White Riesling (United States), Rhine Riesling (Australia) and Riesling Renano (Italy). It should not, however, be confused with Welchriesling, an unrelated variety from Austria, and Welchriesling synonyms Riesling Italico (Italy) and Laski Rizling (Slovenia).

Germany, with more than 50,000 acres, is the largest producer of Riesling. Australia, Alsace and Austria represent three distinct styles of Riesling, mostly dry. Domestically, Washington state is the most important player, but plantings of Riesling also exist in California and New York state (most notably in the Finger Lakes region). Riesling is also cultivated in Canada, Chile, Italy's Alto Adige region, parts of Eastern Europe, New Zealand and South Africa.

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